Why Is Trump Going to War Here?April 23, 2021
STRONGSVILLE, Ohio—The crowd crammed into an indoor-outdoor bar at a sprawling mall in this teeming suburb south of Cleveland. The head of the local Republican club took to the mic on a small stage—and pledged vengeance.
“Sign the petition to ask Congressman Anthony Gonzalez to resign,” Shannon Burns said to a burst of cheers. “If you’re looking at your neighbor right now and saying, ‘What’s he talking about?’ … get with it!”
The second-term representative “betrayed his constituents,” in Burns’ assessment, when he voted in January with nine other House Republicans and every Democrat to impeach Donald Trump.
“He thinks a year from now when it’s election time for the primary you’re all going to forget and he’s going to get reelected,” Burns went on, eliciting snickers and jeers. “And I’m telling you right now: We’re going to make sure you don’t forget.”
In a normal political world and in a normal political time, a second-generation Cuban-American former NFL player from the Rust Belt with an MBA from Stanford would be considered practically by definition a rising GOP star. But Gonzalez’s impeachment decision made him a traitor in the eyes of the man who is manifestly the unofficial leader of the party. It’s the reason Trump wasted no time endorsing Max Miller—a former aide with next to no name ID plus an arrest record—to try to take out Gonzalez. And it’s why the 16th District of Ohio is now a singular early battlefield in the former president’s intensifying intraparty war.
“Anthony Gonzalez should not be representing the people of the 16th District because he does not represent their interest or their heart,” Trump said in a statement barely more than a month after he left office. “Max Miller has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
A 32-year-old Cleveland native, Miller has been endorsed, too, by the Club for Growth, which commissioned a poll that suggests he has a wide lead at this early stage. “If the election was today, Anthony Gonzalez would lose,” Jim Renacci, the pre-Gonzalez Republican congressman here, told me last month. “He’s done,” said Harlan Hill, a Trump-aligned consultant who’s done work in the district. “Max is going to beat the hell out of Anthony.”
But it’s not that simple, according to more than three dozen interviews with strategists, analysts and current and former elected officials from both parties who know the region well. As battlefields go, Ohio as a whole is more red than purple, and so is the 16th District—but it’s replete as well with warning signs for Trump that his quest for retaliation might succeed only in further tearing the party apart.
Gonzalez, 36, from the west side of Cleveland, is a former Ohio State star with a family steel business background who voted in line with Trump nearly 86 percent of the time—a quickie biography and a record as a lawmaker that made him at least pre-impeachment something of a GOP up-and-comer.
Miller, meanwhile, is an electoral novice and the scion of a wealthy, politically connected family from the opposite side of Cleveland in a city in which many believe that divide still matters. And since he announced his bid, his critics say, he’s been hanging around the Trump stronghold of Southeast Florida more conspicuously than he’s been out and about in Northeast Ohio.
“Everyone in the Republican Party is flocking down to South Florida, because that’s where the money is,” Miller told me this week. But he acknowledged he has work to do on the ground at home. “There’s no greater endorsement that anyone in the Republican Party can get than President Trump’s,” he said. “However, it’s going to be on me to go out and persuade voters and for them to get to know me personally in order for them to vote and believe in me.”
Miller has a rap sheet, too, that’s from his late teens but nonetheless looms as largely undetonated ammunition for his opponents. Gonzalez operatives talk privately about Miller not with trepidation so much as relish. “It ain’t gonna be pretty,” one of them told me. “It’s just not.” Aside from what’s assuredly to come in this tussle, Gonzalez outraised Miller in the first quarter (although, to be fair, Miller didn’t declare until late February) and has more than double the cash on hand, Miller isn’t even the lone Trump-lane candidate, parts of the district are actually getting a tick more blue—and, in probably the biggest variable of all, the district is set to be redrawn in ways that could reshape the race.
All of this makes Ohio’s 16th worth watching as an early, distilled look at the potential limits and pitfalls of Trump’s shoot-first, aim-later style, his personality-driven, fealty-fueled, viscerally scattershot politics of retribution. “Anthony’s disloyal, and Max will be a loyalist,” Hill said. “No more complicated than that,” confirmed a person close to Trump. “Trump is such an emotional decider,” former Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Eckart said. This nascent race then could help Trump cement a sweeping and lasting influence—or play out as a case study in the ways in which his inchoate urge for revenge might begin to run into reality.
Is Gonzalez “going to have a spirited primary? Yes,” Republican strategist Barry Bennett, a 2016 Trump adviser who’s from Ohio and has extensive experience in the state, told me. “Is he the underdog? I don’t think so.”
“Everything depends on the redraw, but I think this race is really emblematic of what’s happening within the party across the country,” said Dave Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron.
“It’s a perfect example of how Trump could really hurt not just the near term but the future of the Republican Party,” said David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “It’s all about a loyalty test to him that almost will put targets on the backs of some of their best people.” The issue within the Republican electorate, of course, is that there is fierce disagreement about who those “best people” are.
And here at the Brew Garden at the monthly meeting of the Strongsville GOP, overlooking an asphalt vista of big-box stores, where the Cuyahoga County suburbs start to blend into the Medina County exurbs on the way down to the district’s more rural reaches around Wadsworth and Wooster, the sold-out, 300-strong throng offered at least one side of that debate.
The evening’s featured speaker, Cleveland conservative radio host Bob Frantz, the local iteration of the late Rush Limbaugh, called Democrats “evil,” said “systemic racism” “does not exist,” stressed the importance of the Second Amendment because “people need to have the means to have another revolution” and decried a corporate America “gone woke.” The people gathered clamored for boycotts of baseball and Coke. They booed Joe Biden, obviously, but they also hissed at mentions of Mike DeWine—Ohio’s Republican governor who’s been more pandemic-stringent than some of his counterparts around the country like Ron DeSantis of Florida. They wore Trump shirts. They wore Trump hats. They wore—in defiance of DeWine’s statewide mask mandate—vanishingly few masks. A 60-year-old woman literally pulled mine down below my nose and mouth—worried as she was, she explained, that it was more likely to make me sick.
“WE THE PEOPLE,” said a sweatshirt I saw, “ARE PISSED …”
But that palpable discontent was something less than laser-focused. Some of the attendees I talked to seemed to have their sights set on Gonzalez—I heard him called a “turncoat” and an “asshole”—but others seemed to have only passing knowledge of him or his impeachment vote. I found myself not merely asking questions but having to explain who was running against whom and why. It was a useful reminder of the relatively low level of engagement a year before an election—including even among citizens willing to come to political shindigs like this.
Whether they know it or not, though, these voters are living on a front that’s going to get more and more hot as the calendar hurtles toward 2022. For Trump—for his prospects for his future control of his party—there’s simply too much at stake.
“A year from now, everyone will know about it,” Burns told me. “If I was a betting man, I’d say President Trump’s gonna come in himself—and make sure people remember.” He predicted that would be “the kiss of death.”
Strongsville is a de facto capital of the 16th District. It’s one of its biggest concentrations of Republican voters. It’s the site of Gonzalez’s main non-Washington office. About a half an hour north, just shy of the shore of Lake Erie, is the tip-top of the district’s current contours—the more affluent suburb west of Cleveland called Rocky River. It’s where Gonzalez lives, and it’s where Miller lives now, too.
Gonzalez grew up just to the west, in Avon Lake, and went to high school a bit to the east, at Cleveland’s prestigious Saint Ignatius, the private Roman Catholic Jesuit institution that has doubled as a football powerhouse. He was a philosophy major and an Academic All-American and a wide receiver at Ohio State. He was a first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts and played five seasons in a career hampered and ultimately ended by injuries. He got his graduate degree at Stanford in 2014 and was the COO of Chalk Schools, a San Francisco startup, before moving back home. His Ohio roots based on his sporting past and in particular his Buckeye bona fides were a key piece of his pathway into politics.
Jack Torry, a retired Washington correspondent for a pair of Ohio newspapers, last month sent me a YouTube video of Gonzalez making an extraordinary and basically game-winning catch against archnemesis Michigan in 2005. “Beating Michigan,” Torry told me, “is a big political plus.”
Nostalgia for Gonzalez’ on-field heroics, of course, wasn’t the only engine of his initial electoral foray. His Cuban-born father, the president of a metal processing company with outposts in Ohio, Michigan and Mississippi, helped seed his bid with a PAC. Gonzalez earned the endorsement of perhaps the most prominent fellow Cuban-American politician—Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He got the nod as well as financial help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And he was classified as “On the Radar” of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program for promising GOP prospects.
But the quality of his opposition was as important as his level of support. In the primary in his run in 2018, it’s worth recalling, his chief foe then, too, was a markedly Trump-tinged candidate. Christina Hagan fashioned herself as an enthusiastic Trump acolyte, while Gonzalez was more Trump-cautious—at one point even citing anti-Trump Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska as a role model. The result? Gonzalez won by more than 12 points. Which meant in a safe Republican district he was on his way to Congress—a GOP winner in a cycle in which Democrats would retake control of the House. The day before Election Day, at a MAGA rally in Cleveland, Trump name-checked Gonzalez. He called him “a special person.”
“In 2018, he ran against what was a very imperfect Trump candidate,” Columbus-based Republican strategist Ryan Stubenrauch told me, referring to Hagan—a then-twentysomething ultraconservative state rep who wasn’t even endorsed by Trump. “And he beat her by a little more than 7,000 votes.” (It actually was almost 8,000—but point taken.) “Does voting to impeach the president and being a former Trump official as a primary opponent plus an active role from Donald Trump in the race,” Stubenrauch said, “pick you up 7,000 votes in a Republican-leaning district?” He answered his own question. “It certainly seems like it could be done,” Stubenrauch said, “given the influence Donald Trump has on the Republican Party in Ohio and certainly within the 16th District.”
But Miller, too, is his own kind of imperfect Trump candidate.
Few people in and around Cleveland have heard of Max Miller. But very few people in and around Cleveland haven’t heard of his grandfather. Sam Miller, a real estate developer and philanthropist who died at 97 a little more than two years ago, was the poor son of immigrants from Russia and Poland before becoming over the course of an epic life one of the city’s preeminent political fundraisers and donors to candidates of both parties. He was a power broker. He was a kingmaker. And near the end of his life his company sold for $6.8 billion. “His influence,” onetime Cleveland mayor and former Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich said upon his death, “was total.”
Sam Miller had four children with his first wife, née Ruth Ratner—the sister of his business partner of nearly three-quarters of a century, Albert Ratner, another all-time Cleveland kingpin. One of their children: the former diplomat and Middle East and foreign policy expert (and POLITICO contributor) Aaron David Miller. Another: Abe Miller—the co-owner of a company that makes baseball caps and the father of Max.
Max Miller grew up in old money Shaker Heights in a more than 8,000-square-foot house. He graduated from Shaker Heights High in 2007. He graduated from Cleveland State in 2013.
Miller’s Ohio arrest record was first reported by the Washington Post in 2018. He was charged with assault and disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in 2007 after a fight in which he punched another man in the back of the head and ran from police. He pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanors, and the case was dismissed on account of a program for first offenders. He was charged with underage drinking in 2009, the case dismissed due to the same program. And he was charged with disorderly conduct in 2010 following a fight after leaving a hookah bar in the wee hours in which he bloodied his wrist by punching a glass door. “I did make mistakes in my youth, as many of us have,” Miller said in a statement to Cleveland’s Plain Dealer earlier this year. “Since then I’ve served my country in the Marine Corps Reserves and hold a very high-level security clearance (TS-SCI) approved by the FBI and CIA—which was granted after extensive background checks into my record and character.”
“You have a congressman who can’t run on his record, so he’s going to choose to do a smear campaign,” Miller told me. “He’s going to try to use things from when I was a teenager.” He described it as “shameful.”
A Marine reservist, Miller got a gig as an aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign thanks to a cousin who had a connection—Eli Miller, who’s now a managing director for an investment management firm, according to his LinkedIn page, but in 2015 and ’16 was a deputy finance director for Rubio’s presidential campaign before shifting to be the COO of finance down the general election stretch for the Trump campaign. After Trump won, Max Miller worked in Washington in the office of presidential personnel, helping with the placement of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs appointees. After that, he was the director of advance. On the 2020 campaign, he was a deputy campaign manager. “He’s been with him for the entire presidency in various roles that were up close and personal,” a senior Trump adviser told me about the former president’s relationship with Miller, “and he likes him a lot.”
Congressional candidates don’t need to live in their districts. For his run for Congress, though, Miller’s move to Rocky River was kind of a must. For all the ways in which he’s ancestrally an insider in the area, Miller’s more an outsider in this specific congressional district.
“Cleveland has this cultural thing where it’s very East Side-West Side, like there are almost two separate cities in terms of the suburbs,” Monique Smith, a Democrat in the state Legislature who represents a handful of suburbs on the West Side, told me. “Max Miller comes from the other side.”
“Max Miller comes from one of Cleveland’s wealthiest and most prominent East Side families,” said Jim Simon, who lives in Akron and is a member of the Ohio Republican State Central Committee. “I don’t know how Max Miller’s background and privilege plays in this West Side district.”
When I talked to Miller, he downplayed the divide. “It’s more of a rivalry,” he said. “It’s like, if you went to Shaker, you played Rocky River in baseball, right?”
Miller’s generally been sparse with his interviews in the going on two months since he announced his candidacy, sticking mostly to friendly, partisan platforms. He’s gone on Newsmax and OAN. He’s gone on Frantz’s show. To my eye and ear, he has … room for improvement, often presenting as somewhat stilted, nervous or rehearsed. My reporting says I’m not the only one who’s noticed. “It is clear he’s not yet gotten his feet underneath him,” said a Republican strategist who knows Ohio.
Gonzalez declined to talk to me for this story. It’s not hard to see why he might not want to call additional attention to the ways he’s at odds with the Trump-torqued chunk of his Republican base. But in interviews with NBC News, the Dispatch podcast and the conservative radio host Frantz in the immediate aftermath of his vote, he’s tried to divorce his decision from the pure pick-a-side politics of the moment.
“In the long arc of history, I believe it was the right vote,” he said. “Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now, what are people going to say about Jan. 6?” he said. “What this was was an attempt by the president of the United States to circumvent the Constitution to overturn an election,” he said. But he’s clear-eyed about the possible consequences. “I’m not an idiot,” he said. “I understand what this vote means and what it could potentially mean for my political career.”
He also, though, in the middle of January capped his appearance on the air with Frantz by trying to start to make amends with his constituents who feel livid or just let down.
“Every single person listening, every conservative listening right now,” Gonzalez said, “we have Joe Biden coming into office in a couple of days, we have a Democratic Senate, we have a Democrat-controlled House. We are going to have to be unified and pushing back on the agenda that we know is so bad for this country. We have to be. I know I took a vote that everybody can’t stand. I get that. But the priority moving forward, for me, for my office, for I hope every conservative across the country and certainly listening to this radio program, is to make sure that we stay together and prevent D.C. statehood, to prevent socialized medicine, to prevent all these crazy things that have been campaigned on by liberal politicians.”
Frantz told him he had “guts for coming on” his show “after the vote.” On subsequent shows, though, talking with Miller and with Burns, the popular host also called Gonzalez’s vote “shameful” and concurred that it constituted apostasy.
If Ohio can be seen as “the ultimate microcosm” of the country overall—“an ur-place,” “an uncannily complete everyplace,” “a reflection of the nation,” in the estimation of the Ohio writer David Giffels—then the 16th District could be considered a microcosm of that microcosm.
In winning Ohio twice, Trump took the district in 2016 with 56.2 percent and upped that to 56.5 last year. But it’s true, too, that Biden did better in the 16th (42.2 percent) than Hillary Clinton did (39.5). And Gonzalez? He did better than Trump—winning 63.2 percent of the vote.
Western Cuyahoga County, furthermore, is home to the lone state House district in Ohio that flipped in 2020 from red to blue. In Bay Village, Westlake, North Olmsted, Fairview Park and Rocky River, Monique Smith edged out Dave Greenspan—making Smith, a Democrat, Gonzalez’s (and now Miller’s) state rep. “The reason my part of the district flipped,” Smith told me, “was it was following that trend that we started to see in 2018, where suburban voters were just repulsed and disgusted by the political tone they saw coming from the president.”
The Ohio State Board of Education district that roughly corresponds to the 16th District also flipped from red to blue. While technically a nonpartisan election, Christina Collins, a Democrat, beat by a hair Lisa Woods, not just a Republican but a Republican who last year traveled to Bethesda, Maryland, to attend the vigil outside Walter Reed hospital when Trump was there sick with Covid. “To me,” Collins said when we talked this month, “that indicated that there are some moderate voters in there—have to be.” She couldn’t and wouldn’t have won without them.
None of these finer, quieter crosscurrents, of course, were detectable in the midst of the Strongsville throng.
One man told me matter-of-factly that he believed Covid vaccines were going to kill 50 million people and that Trump hadn’t actually been inoculated in spite of what he’s repeatedly said. “He already knows the people that voted for him will not get the vaccine,” said Joe Poldruhi, 55, a maintenance man from nearby Olmsted Falls. “All the people that voted for Biden and hate Trump are taking the vaccine. Trump has no problem with that. Because they’re going to be dead.”
He told me he thought Trump “was going to win California, and when they called California as fast as they called it, I said, ‘Something is not right. There’s something that’s not right.’ He was sweeping everything—and then all of a sudden they stopped counting. I’m, like, ‘OK, Trump was right. He was absolutely right.’ He said, ‘They’re going to steal it.’ And they stole it. We watched ’em steal it.”
He said he used to be a big-time Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Now he doesn’t watch the Steelers or any professional football because of the kneeling players, or any sports at all, he said, because of what he considers increasingly liberal and activist athletes.
I looked around, taking in the buzzy Brew Garden scene.
“This is your sports,” I said.
“This is my sports,” he said.
“Joe Biden is not my president. Donald Trump is still my president.”
Notably not among the 300 Republicans on hand: Miller or Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was in town but spent the day visiting a couple of businesses in Brunswick before returning to Washington. Miller was missing on account of a delayed flight back from Florida. He had been down there for a weekend of GOP and Trump-tied fundraisers and festivities.
The only 16th District candidate present was the other Trump-lane candidate. Jonah Schulz is even younger and nothing if not eager. He lives in Cleveland, outside the district, and ran in the 11th District in 2020, losing in that Republican primary. Still, he’s a threat to siphon at least some Trump supporters’ votes. “I’ve been going to three to four events per week, and I have not run into Max,” Schulz said in March the first time we talked. “I’ll be interested to meet him,” he told me drily when we chatted near the back of the bar.
“Schulz needs to get out of the race,” Harlan Hill told me. “Don’t split the Trump vote. It’s time to consolidate behind Max Miller. He’s got the endorsement.”
“He should see,” Miller said, “that I’m in better position to unseat Gonzalez.”
But some Republican consultants argued right now it’s not about what Schulz needs to do as much as it is about what Miller does. “You can’t win a primary in the middle of Ohio from Palm Beach,” said one GOP strategist with Ohio experience. “Max,” said Barry Bennett, “needs to get out of Mar-a-Lago and into Medina.”
“Max raises money at Mar-a-Lago with President Trump,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the dynamics of the race. “Anthony Gonzalez is stuck doing Zoom calls with John Boehner.”
In the 16th, with some exceptions, a general rule of thumb is this: The more south you go, south from Rocky River, south from Strongsville, the more Trumpy it gets. I drove that way.
It’s impossible to know for sure which parts of the district will stay and which parts will go.
“Who knows what it’ll look like in ’22?” said Pepper, the former Ohio Democratic Party chair.
“That’s the thing,” Susan Moran Palmer, Gonzalez’s opponent in the general election in ’18, told me. “You don’t know what the district’s going to be.”
“Redistricting,” granted Strongsville’s Burns, “is going to be a little bit tricky.”
And Chris Glassburn, a North Olmsted city council member and a redistricting expert who assisted Ohio Democrats in the 2010 cycle, told me the 16th could become more suburban, less rural and “considerably less” Republican.
The shape and the breakdown are wait-and-see wild cards. For now, though, I got off the interstates and zigzagged from Strongsville to Medina, from Wadsworth to Wooster, shifting from suburban to exurban to residually agrarian to authentically and stubbornly so, from low-slung strip malls to horse stables and silos, through four-way stops and rundown towns, over verdant hills and past rows of crops, past Blue Lives Matter flags, past NO STEP ON SNEK flags, past Trump flags and still-up signs in yards and on porches and in windows, past a T-R-U-M-P painted in black block letters on big brown boards, past a tattered MAGA banner twisted into a tree at the front of an empty lot.